Nithya Ramanathan is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving human life and protecting our planet by designing sensor technologies, generating data analytics, and advocating for data-driven solutions to global challenges. Nexleaf focuses on serving low-income countries by protecting temperature-sensitive vaccines for newborns, reducing air pollution through incentivizing adoption of cleaner cooking practices, and increasing the livelihood of smallholder farmers by protecting produce from spoilage. With Project Surya partners, Nithya leads StoveTrace, an innovative approach to monitoring improved cookstoves and using cutting-edge climate science to increase clean energy access in the developing world. Nexleaf’s immunization platform, ColdTrace, developed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google.org, Gavi, Ministries of Health and NGO partners, currently protects the vaccine supply for over 12 million babies born each year.
Nithya brings over 20 years of experience as a computer scientist to the development of sensing and analytics applications, including her work in research and hardware development at Intel and Hewlett-Packard and as an Assistant Research Faculty in Computer Science at UCLA. She holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UCLA and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from UC Berkeley, and her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals including Vaccine and Nature Climate Change. Nithya is a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, Switzer Environmental Fellow, and a Rainer Arnhold Fellow. She is the winner of the 2017 Hedy Lamarr Award for Female Tech Pioneer, and has presented at the Vatican on creating innovative technology solutions for climate change.
Network Capital’s interview with Nithya
1. What do you do?
I am the CEO and Co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics. We focus on global health, climate change, and sustainable agriculture interventions. I lead the strategy and vision of the organization, and develop partnerships with governments and NGOs to introduce our innovations and programs to new countries and sectors.
2. Why do you do what you do?
I started out working as an engineer at large tech companies, but I wanted something more out my career, I wanted to develop solutions that work for people. Technology is such a powerful tool, and when done right, technology can bridge the gap where other infrastructure is lacking. We’ve seen how people armed with the right tools, when armed with the right data from those tools, can advocate for better resources. It’s fascinating to see the effect that technological innovation can produce and I’m so humbled to be able to be a part of it.
3. What is the one thing you believe to be true but others rarely agree with you on?
Failure is a part of success. I think people see failure as something wrong, something to avoid, but failure is actually a great learning opportunity. Even when people fail, the instinct is to try and hide those mistakes but transparency is so important.
4. Which failure or apparent failure set you up for success?
Nexleaf is built on so many mistakes, but we use those mistakes as opportunities to course-correct and to ask, How do we solve this? Why did we go wrong here? Probably my greatest failure happened before I started Nexleaf, when I was in grad school. I did a research project on sensor networks to measure arsenic in groundwater in Bangladesh. Everyone there was so grateful to see us there because they thought we were solving this problem of poisoned water, but it was just a research project. I then raised enough funds to dig a well that could provide clean water to the village. This is probably my biggest mistake because I never asked questions about the sustainability of this well, like who would maintain it or pay for its upkeep. I often think about that and this experience has influenced how Nexleaf is built.
5. What is the best investment you have made in yourself?
Building a great network of supporters and mentors. There are some important people in my life who I regularly go to for advice and feedback and they will undoubtedly ask me the tough questions that make me reevaluate my choices. I find that some of my advisors have become Nexleaf’s greatest champions.
6. Has your career been planned or a function of serendipity?
I would say my career has been about pushing against the plan. I began working in large tech companies right after college, but after some encouraging I left to pursue my PhD in computer science. And while, I’ve followed a steady course to a certain extent, I’m constantly course-correcting based on feedback from the team or partners, and it’s taken me down some uncharted, but exciting avenues. There are some serendipitous encounters with other thought-leaders or executives which have informed some of the choices we’ve made as an organization.
7. What is the role of mentors in your life?
Mentors have been instrumental in a lot of my thinking. My advisor in grad school Deborah Estrin taught me the idea of embracing failure and this really set the tone for the work I do now. She continues to be a great resource, she challenges me and encourages me to reflect on my choices. There are also countless others who have guided me, including Kevin Starr from Mulago Foundation and Pascal Finette from Singularity University. They’re really inspiring in how they think about creating lasting change and about reaching massive impact through exponential technology. I’m constantly learning and growing because of people like them.
8. What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
This is funny – I might want to ask my 18 year old self for advice right now. I would tell my 18 year old self not to think she has to do it all. There’s so much pressure on young people to ‘do it all’ and it shouldn’t be that way. People can’t do everything, especially not alone, and I want people, including my younger self, to understand that failing doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding.
9. What next?
Right now, one of our solutions protects the vaccine supply for 12.5 million babies born on Earth each year. And while I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished, we’re barely scratching the surface of what innovation can do. We’re developing some exciting partnerships with the private sector to create new solutions, and I can’t wait to share the results and learnings we generate from these exploratory projects.